This medieval street dates back as far as the 16th century and is believed to be one of only five medieval lanes that still exist in the city out of an original 14. It is considered by historians and archaeologists to be one of the richest areas “in terms of its medieval layout, building design and street plan”. It evidently received its name from the Kirwan family, one of only two of ‘the tribes’ who were of Gaelic origin. They were successful merchants and landowners who moved into the city around 1490, and whose wealth helped Galway reach the peak of its splendour during the 16th and 17th centuries.
The lane was originally two lanes separated by a building. On the 1651 map, Kirwan’s Lane which runs towards the river from Cross Street is described as ‘Vicus Kirvanorum’, while another lane, Martin’s Mill Lane, ‘Vicus Mole Martini’, is shown running almost at right angles to it, towards Quay Street. The name of the latter gradually evolved to Martin’s Lane, and when the separating building was knocked, it became Kirwan’s Lane. In the early 1700s Galway merchants were persecuted under the penal laws with heavy duties being imposed on their imported goods, so a lot of these goods were smuggled into the city through a passage in Martin’s Lane on into Kirwan’s Lane and from there throughout the city.
Humanity Dick Martin married a Kirwan, and in 1783, they opened a theatre on the lane (where Judy Greene’s is today ), in which many famous actors of the day — including the patriot Wolfe Tone — appeared. Martin sold it to Alexander McCartney in 1792 and he enlarged it to cater for the growing number of spectators. It continued for many years until a new purpose-built theatre opened in Lombard Street.
In 1686, the building where Busker Browne’s is today was the site of a Dominican nunnery. They were forced to leave and in 1716 it was a military barracks. The nuns returned in 1717. In 1808, a committee of Catholic women opened a school for the ‘education of poor female children’ in the lane. In 1815 it was taken over by the Presentation Sisters who, due to increasing numbers, moved the school to the Square the following year. In 1845 the Dominican nuns moved out of the lane for good. From this time on, some of the buildings were used for commercial purposes while others became tenements which housed a lot of families.
By the 1960s (when our photograph was taken ), there was John Faherty’s yard where he stored sacks of meal, McDonagh’s fish filleting room, Colleran’s Butcher’s yard, a dipping shop for pine furniture, and a bikers yard in the lane, and the rest was derelict. In 1993, redevelopment began with the aim of restoring its medieval landscape, and today Kirwan’s Lane stands as testimony to the fact that the protection of valued architecture and commercial activity need not be necessarily exclusive.
All of the above information and more besides is contained in an important article by Eva Maguire and Michael Quinn in the current issue of the Galway Archaeological and Historical Society’s Journal (Volume 64 ). As usual it is packed with interesting articles, book reviews, illustrations, etc. The annual subscription to the society is only €20, and this includes a copy of the journal and invites to the society’s programme of lectures. Excellent value.
Journals such as this tend to appear irregularly, but for many years now, the GAHS journal has been published annually, invariably at this time of the year, thanks to the diligence, energy, and professionalism of its editor Diarmuid Ó Cearbhaill who sadly passed away recently. He was an erudite and cultured man who had the common touch and a great sense of humour. He combined a successful academic career with a passion for extending his own and others’ knowledge of the heritage of this country, particularly of the west of Ireland. He played the ‘good cop/bad cop’ game beautifully, imposing seemingly harsh deadlines on contributors, and then using his infectious enthusiasm to suggest minor changes to their contributions which invariably improved them. He has left us an important and valuable legacy and he will be sorely missed. Solas na bhFhlaitheas dá anam uasal.